Baobabs (Adansonia digitata) are native to sub-Saharan Africa. Members of the genus Adansonia and family Malvaceae, they are charismatic trees, towering over the surrounding vegetation and landscape with their enormous, cylindrical trunks, and thin, tapering branches. Subjects of several myths and legends, Baobabs have for long provided the people of Africa food, water, shelter and cures for several ailments. This beneficial aspect of the tree has become common knowledge even in countries where the species was introduced, such as India. In fact, some Hindu communities in South Asia have taken to worshiping the tree and given it the title of ‘Kalpa Vriksha’ – the tree that grants wishes. Baobabs have multiple uses for local communities. The enormous trunks, reaching 28 m in diameter and 25 m in height, have often been used for housing and storage. Rainwater collecting in the trees’ hollows has been utilized as a source of drinking water. There are several examples of hollows being carved out on purpose to serve as reservoirs in the long African summer.

Baobab leaves are an excellent source of Vitamin C. They are consumed as a vegetable, turned into soups, or dried and ground into an edible powder. Oil can be extracted from the seeds. Seeds can also be roasted to brew a coffee-like beverage. The flower and fruits are fed to domestic animals. Baobab fruits resemble large, egg-shaped capsules, reaching a length of 15-20 cm. Inside the hard, woody outer shell is a cream-coloured pulp with black kidney-shaped seeds and reddish-brown fibers. The fibers are especially rich in Vitamin C. The pulp is eaten fresh or turned into a refreshing drink. The trees themselves harbour African Honey Bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) whose hives are exploited by local communities. The continent’s wildlife is also dependent on the species, especially during the harsh summer. Several agronomists believe that the trees can boost rural economies, improving food security and protecting arable land.

Baobabs were brought to South Asia by Arabs and Africans. Many tales have developed around the Baobabs of India. One particular specimen, the ‘Parijat Baobab’ of Barabanki District, in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is associated with the Pandavas, heroes of the Mahabharata epic. Baobabs were also planted in several parts of South India. Though the trees are very long-lived, with experts estimating a life span of  between 1,500 to 2,000 years, they are vulnerable to damage caused by human beings, large mammals, pests and extreme weather. Recently, a very old Baobab growing in the Attapur locality of Hyderabad (the capital of South India’s Telangana state), venerated by the area’s devout Hindus, collapsed. The exact reason for the behemoth’s demise is not known but news reports have pointed fingers at termites. Given below is an excerpt from ‘The Hindu’ newspaper’s report – ‘Centuries-old African Baobab tree collapses at Attapur’ (by Serish Nanisetti, dated August 17, 2018):

The hundreds-of-years-old African Baobab (Adansonia digitata) tree collapsed at Attapur area near Ananta Padmanabhaswamy temple. “We come to worship this tree every year around this time of monsoon. The tree, which was standing straight, has collapsed now. Even a month ago, when one of our relatives came to worship here, it was straight,” said Rekha Sharma, who came with her family from old city to pray. Hyderabad has a few dozen African Baobab trees brought here by Portuguese traders, African slaves and travellers. Many Hindus consider the African Boabab as the mythical Kalpavriksh and offer prayers for wish fulfilment. Some of the upper branches of the tree appeared as if they have been hollowed out by termites. Incidentally, a few feet away from the tree is a high termite mound where women pray during Nagula Chavathi, after Deepavali. “Recently there was a scare about the African Baobab tree at Naya Qila. We sent in our official to check it out and found it to be in the pink of health. It has a hollow inside, but that’s been there from the beginning,” said M.H. Thangal, Archaeological Survey of India, horticulture branch in Mysore. The ASI Mysore team recently carried out a study of the African Baobab tree in Golconda Fort.

India’s Baobabs also provide remarkable insights into the political, cultural and commercial ties between South Asia and Africa. I will be writing more about these magnificent trees in the coming days.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a Baobab Tree growing near Omuramba, Kunene, Namibia. The photograph was uploaded by Hans Hillewaert.

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